Embrace The Gray

Beaver on rock imageA beaver in early morning light on a dull overcast day

It’s always a challenge when you must deal with a dull gray background whether it is caused by a dull gray sky or dull gray water. Frequently this kind of effect occurs on overcast days especially in the early morning. But instead of despairing about the color of the sky or lack of color in the water why not maximize that dull gray to your advantage and use it to your advantage.

Beavers KissingA pair of beavers using a high key effect

This is where the whole idea of high key effect can make such a difference in your photography. Attempting high key in the field works best when your image has a lot of sky or water and very little else aside from your subject. On days like this I deliberately try to dial in my settings to get that high key effect right in camera. This minimizes the degree of editing in postproduction and prevents overprocessing an image in Lightroom or Photoshop. In the field I am trying to brighten the scene without blowing out the highlights (watch your viewfinder to make sure you have not blown out the whites) as much as possible to wash out that gray and get it closer to white.  That means my aperture is wide open, and I am slowing shutter speed and increasing the ISO all things that allow more light to reach the sensor of the camera. And the big bonus high key images tend to look awesome in black-and-white especially with an uncluttered background. What it leaves is a clean white palette with just your subject and minimal habitat. If the animal in your photo is highly textured, like a bear or in this case a beaver they really look great in black and white, the key is textured animals think lots of fur, birds don’t present as well in black-and-white, but fur detail really pops in black-and-white.

Beaver in monochromeThe first beaver image in this post converted to black and white

So when you’re in the field and it’s a dull, not a bright sunny day think about whether you can wash out the dull grey and make the sky more white if you have a minimalistic scene.  Try to visually what the scene you are viewing might look like as a monochrome. Once you bring your images into Lightroom, a quick way to remove the dull gray colour whether that’s in the sky or in the water is to select the subject and invert those selection so you’re choosing everything else except the subject. Then either increase the contrast which is going to make the gray whiter or increase the whites, additionally you can desaturate the blues using the color sliders by moving it to the left (not the temperature, but the saturation slider in the HSL/Colour area). If you decide to make the image black-and-white in Lightroom convert it to a monochrome image and then go down to the slider colours partway down in tool list in Lightroom, this time slide the blue all the way to right to oversaturate, this will make any of the gray color, totally white and give the image a high key effect. Lastly focus on bringing out the texture detail back in subject by selecting the subject in Lightroom and increasing texture and contrast.

Beaver on rocks landscapeA landscape showcasing the shoreline and the beaver and fully maximizing the high key effect

My advice, take advantage of these conditions, overcast days are great days for photography and provide some of the best photo opportunities. And be ready to get that award winning dramatic black-and-white photo!

squirrel high keyExample of the high key effect on a dull gray sky

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